The Canterbury Tales Summary

In The Canterbury Tales, the narrator sets out on a pilgrimage to Canterbury along with twenty-nine other people. They agree to a storytelling contest in order to pass the time.

The Canterbury Tales summary key points:

  1. The characters represent various social levels, including a knight, some clergymen, members of the middle class, and a few peasants.

  2. The stories cover many genres from medieval literature and reflect the lively characters who tell the tales.

  3. The pilgrims respond to one another’s stories and create links between seemingly disparate topics.


Summary of the Poem
In the beauty of April, the Narrator and 29 oddly assorted travelers happen to meet at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, London. This becomes the launching point for their 60-mile, four-day religious journey to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at the Cathedral in Canterbury. Great blessing and forgiveness were to be heaped upon those who made the pilgrimage; relics of the saint were enshrined there, and miracles had been reported by those who prayed before the shrine. Chaucer's pilgrims, however, are not all traveling for religious reasons. Many of them simply enjoy social contact or the adventure of travel.

As the travelers are becoming acquainted, their Host, the innkeeper Harry Bailley, decides to join them. He suggests that they pass the time along the way by telling stories. Each pilgrim is to tell four stories—two on the way to Canterbury, and two on the return trip—a total of 120 stories. He will furnish dinner at the end of the trip to the one who tells the best tale. The framework is thus laid out for the organization of The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer, the Narrator, observes all of the characters as they are arriving and getting acquainted. He describes in detail most of the travelers which represent a cross-section of fourteenth-century English society. All levels are represented, beginning with the Knight who is the highest ranking character socially. Several levels of holiness and authority in the clergy are among the pilgrims while the majority of the characters are drawn from the middle class. A small number of the peasant class are also making the journey, most of them as servants to other pilgrims.

As the travelers begin their journey the next morning, they draw straws to see who will tell the first tale. The Knight draws the shortest straw. He begins the storytelling with a long romantic epic about two brave young knights who both fall in love with the same woman and who spend years attempting to win her love.

Everyone enjoys the tale and they agree that the trip is off to an excellent start. When the Host invites the Monk to tell a story to match the Knight's, the Miller, who is drunk, becomes so rude and insistent that he be allowed to go next that the Host allows it. The Miller's tale is indeed very funny, involving several tricks and a very dirty prank as a young wife conspires with her lover to make love to him right under her husband's nose.

The Miller's fabliau upsets the Reeve because it involves an aging carpenter being cuckolded by his young wife, and the Reeve himself is aging and was formerly a carpenter. Insulted by the Miller, the Reeve retaliates with a tale about a miller who is made a fool of in very much the same manner as the carpenter in the preceding rendition.

After the Reeve, the Cook speaks up and begins to tell another humorous adventure about a thieving, womanizing young apprentice. Chaucer did not finish writing this story; it stops almost at the beginning.

When the dialogue among the travelers resumes, the morning is half gone and the Host, Harry Bailley, urges the Man of Law to begin his entry quickly. Being a lawyer, the Man of Law is very long-winded and relates a very long story about the life of a noblewoman named Constance who suffers patiently and virtuouly through a great many terrible trials. In the end she is rewarded for her perseverence.

The Man of Law's recital, though lengthy, has pleased the other pilgrims very much. Harry Bailley then calls upon the Parson to tell a similar tale of goodness; but the Shipman, who wants to hear no more sermonizing, says he will take his turn next and will tell a merry story without a hint of preaching. Indeed, his story involves a lovely wife who cuckolds her husband to get money for a new dress and gets away with the whole affair.

Evidently looking for contrast in subject matter, the Host next invites the Prioress to give them a story. Graciously, she relates a short legend about a little schoolboy who is martyred and through whose death a miracle takes place.

After hearing this miraculous narrative, all of the travelers become very subdued, so the Host calls upon the Narrator (Chaucer) to liven things up. Slyly making fun of the Host's literary pretensions, Chaucer recites a brilliant parody on knighthood composed in low rhyme. Harry hates Chaucer's poem and interrupts to complain; again in jest, Chaucer tells a long, boring version of an ancient myth. However, the Host is very impressed by the serious moral tone of this inferior tale and is hightly complimentary.

Since the myth just told involved a wise and patient wife, Harry Bailley takes this opportunity to criticize his own shrewish wife. He then digresses further with a brief commentary on monks which leads him to call upon the pilgrim Monk for his contribution to the entertainment.

The Monk belies his fun-loving appearance by giving a disappointing recital about famous figures who are brought low by fate. The Monk's subject is so dreary that the Knight stops him, and the Host berates him for lowering the morale of the party. When the Monk refuses to change his tone, the Nun's Priest accepts the Host's request for a happier tale. The Priest renders the wonderful fable of Chanticleer, a proud rooster taken in by the flattery of a clever fox.

Harry Bailley is wildly enthusiastic about the Priest's tale, turning very bawdy in his praise. The earthy Wife of Bath is chosen as the next participant, probably because the Host suspects that she will continue in the same bawdy vein. However, the Wife turns out to be quite a philosopher, prefacing her tale with a long discourse on marriage. When she does tell her tale, it is about the marriage of a young and virile knight to an ancient hag.

When the Wife has concluded, the Friar announces that he will tell a worthy tale about a summoner. He adds that everyone knows there is nothing good to say about summoners and tells a story which proves his point.

Infuriated by the Friar's insulting tale, the Summoner first tells a terrible joke about friars and then a story which condemns them, too. His rendering is quite coarse and dirty.

Hoping for something more uplifting next, the Host gives the Cleric his chance, reminding the young scholar not to be too scholarly and to put in some adventure. Obligingly, the Cleric entertains with his tale of the cruel Walter of Saluzzo who tested his poor wife unmercifully.

The Cleric's tale reminds the Merchant of his own unhappy marriage and his story reflects his state. It is yet another tale of a bold, unfaithful wife in a marriage with a much older man.

When the Merchant has finished, Harry Bailley again interjects complaints about his own domineering wife, but then requests a love story of the Squire. The young man begins an exotic tale that promises to be a fine romance, but Chaucer did not complete this story, so it is left unfinished.

The dialogue resumes with the Franklin complimenting the Squire and trying to imitate his eloquence with an ancient lyric of romance.

There is no conversation among the pilgrims before the Physician's tale. His story is set in ancient Rome and concerns a young virgin who prefers death to dishonor.

The Host has really taken the Physician's sad story to heart and begs the Pardoner to lift his spirits with a happier tale. However, the other pilgrims want something more instructive, so the Pardoner obliges. After revealing himself to be a very wicked man, the Pardoner instructs the company with an allegory about vice leading three young men to their deaths. When he is finished, the Pardoner tries to sell his fake relics to his fellow travellers, but the Host prevents him, insulting and angering him in the process. The Knight has to intervene to restore peace.

The Second Nun then tells the moral and inspiring life of St. Cecelia. About five miles later, a Canon and his Yeoman join the party, having ridden madly to catch up. Converstion reveals these men to be outlaws of sorts, but they are made welcome and invited to participate in the storytelling all the same.
When the Canon's Yeoman reveals their underhanded business, the Canon rides off in a fit of anger, and the Canon's Yeoman relates a tale about a cheating alchemist, really a disclosure about the Canon.

It is late afternoon by the time the Yeoman finishes and the Cook has become so drunk that he falls off his horse. There is an angry interchange between the Cook and the Manciple, and the Cook has to be placated with more wine. The Manciple then tells his story, which is based on an ancient myth and explains why the crow is black.

At sundown the Manciple ends his story. The Host suggests that the Parson conclude the day of tale-telling with a fable. However, the Parson preaches a two-hour sermon on penitence instead. The Canterbury Tales end here.

Although Chaucer actually completed only about one-fifth of the proposed 120 tales before his death, The Canterbury Tales reflects all the major types of medieval literature. They are defined for the reader as follows:

Romance: a narrative in metrical verse; tales of love, adventure, knightly combat, and ceremony.

Fabliau: stories based on trickery and deception; often involves adultery

Myth: a story originating in classical literature

Breton Lais: a type of fairy tale; set in the Brittany province of France; contains fairies, elves, folk wisdom, and folktales

Beast Fable: animals personify human qualities and act out human situations; usually teaches a lesson

Sermon: a Christian lesson

Exemplum: a story which teaches a well-known lesson

Saint's Legend: inspiring story of the life and death of a saint

Miracle Story: one in which a saint or the Virgin Mary intervenes with a miracle in response to the faithfulness of a follower

Allegory: a tale in which persons represent abstract qualities; i.e., Death, Virtue, Love

Mock Romance: parodies, or makes fun of, the usual subjects of a romance

These genres are further explained in the analyses of individual tales.

Estimated Reading Time

The length of time necessary to read the entire work will depend on whether it is being read in Modern or Middle English. The reading in Modern English will go much faster; probably an hour for the prologue and an hour for The Knight's Tale, with the remainder of the tales requiring 30 to 45 minutes each.

If the student is required to read the work in Middle English, with all the footnotes for interpretation, each part named above will take about twice as long. The reader can estimate a total of 14 hours for the Modern English version, or 28 hours for the Middle English.

It is strongly suggested that the book be divided by the reader into manageable units for sittings of no more than two hours.

The Canterbury Tales Overview

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In the “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer describes the assembling of a group of pilgrims at the Tabard Inn near London. They plan to journey to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, murdered by agents of King Henry II of England in 1170. A pilgrimage to this spot was one of the favorite religious exercises in medieval England, but Chaucer’s work does not deal with an actual pilgrimage. It would have been an impossible feat for about thirty people traveling on horseback to tell a series of tales, mostly in verse. In “The Knight’s Tale,” one character says:

This world nys but a a thurghfare ful of wo,And we been pilgrymes, passinge to and fro,Deeth is an ende of every worldly soore.

(This world is but a thoroughfare of woe/ And we be pilgrims passing to and fro/ Death is the end of every worldly sore.) This pilgrimage, then, is a symbol of the life of human beings.

Their host at the Tabard, Harry Bailey, proclaims that he will accompany the pilgrims and judge the effectiveness of the tales. The scope of the completed work, two tales by each pilgrim on the way out, two more on the way back, would have amounted to about 120 tales. Like Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and other grandiose literary schemes, the work falls far short of its goal. The pilgrims, in fact, do not reach Canterbury. Chaucer may have run out of time or energy—or he may never have intended to write so many tales. In the symbolic sense, Canterbury represents death, the end of the earthly journey. It is fitting that the pilgrims remain on their pilgrimage of life toward death.

Most of the pilgrims come alive in the descriptions in the “General Prologue.” Several colorful ones are in holy orders or are functionaries of the medieval church. These include priests (at least two, possibly four), two nuns, a monk, a friar, a pardoner who sells papal indulgences, and a summoner who issues summonses to an ecclesiastical court. The majority of these officials hardly live up to their vocational ideal. The Prioress is a rich, extravagant woman, the Friar gives very easy penances to confessors to encourage personal gifts, the Monk spends little time in his cloister, and the Pardoner and Summoner are scoundrels. The Parson, however, performs his duties admirably; he preaches well and, more important, obeys the rules himself. He is patient, diligent, generous, a true shepherd of souls.

Another group of pilgrims contributes tales on the subject of marriage. Of these, the most fascinating, though not the most exemplary, is that of the Wife of Bath. She has had five husbands and is now seeking a sixth. Her tale, designed to prove that wives should have sovereignty over their husbands, shocks several of the men and provokes several more marriage tales. The Clerk, a university student who will probably become a cleric, tells of a lord who subjects his wife to years of abuse, all to prove that if she submits patiently to it all, she will be rewarded. The Merchant offers a tale of a young wife who betrays her senile husband. The Franklin, who clearly does not approve of most of what he has heard and seen, offers a romance of two devoted—and married—lovers. Arveragus, the husband, resembles the Clerk’s lord in expecting more or less blind obedience from his Dorigen, but extends her torment only minutes instead of years. All these men reject utterly the Wife of Bath’s treatise on sovereignty, but Averagus, while no incipient feminist, understands that women, like men, enjoy liberty and temperate behavior from their mates.

The Canterbury Tales exists as a group of ten fragments, containing from one to six tales each. Although some fragments are clearly meant to precede or follow others, no one knows what Chaucer’s complete order might have been, but that he wanted the Parson’s Tale to come last is obvious. This man’s lesson on penance and on the Seven Deadly Sins amounts to a resolution of the points of conflict seen in the marriage tales, for instance, and of controversies that erupt among the pilgrims themselves.

These controversies, for the medieval Christian mind, reflect the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a medieval favorite, the beast fable. A fox invades a barnyard and captures Chauntecleer, a cock, who has wit enough to know that the fox, successfully fleeing from the owner’s pursuit, is too proud of his own cleverness to avoid bragging to his pursuers. To brag is to open the mouth in which he clutches Chauntecleer, allowing his escape to the nearest tree. The Pardoner’s proposition is simply that greed is the root of all evil. Three men fall victim to their own greed by killing one another, each obsessed with being the possessor of gold coins found under a tree.

Sin breaks out not only in the tales but also in the links between them, in which the pilgrims interact. One prominent sin is anger. Some of the pilgrims either already know and dislike their fellow travelers or quickly learn to dislike them. The Miller tells a tale in which a carpenter is betrayed by his wife and a parish clerk. The Reeve, employed as a foreman on a manor, is a carpenter by trade who sees the Miller’s carpenter as a caricature of himself. His response is to retaliate by telling a tale featuring a miller who is humiliated even further. There is no reconciliation between these two or in a similar exchange of tales between the Friar and the Summoner, but in a stormy clash between the Pardoner and the Host, occasioned by the Pardoner’s charge that the Host is the greatest sinner of the group, the Knight intervenes and literally makes them kiss and make up.

The fact that sin is not always punished and sometimes might seem to be at least tacitly approved in The Canterbury Tales raises the question of the sincerity of Chaucer’s insistence that all his writing reflects Christian doctrine. The tale of the Parson goes far in answering this question. The Parson is not Chaucer’s most interesting character, and up to the time of his tale, he is an observer. Someone else, the Knight or the Host, steps forward to make peace. The Parson is presented as a man of great integrity in the “General Prologue,” but he is silent throughout most of the work. When the Host introduces him rather rudely, he rejects the latter’s suggestion of a “fable.” The Host then suggests a quick tale; the Parson replies with the longest one of all. His tale, though far from the most popular among today’s readers, has qualities that Chaucer’s contemporaries surely would have recognized. It would have struck them as less dull than we find it. This tale would have helped the medieval audience understand the entire Canterbury Tales more clearly than today’s typical reader. It is one of only two tales composed in prose rather than verse, but the prose clearly and vigorously resolves the moral issues posed by the waywardness of the pilgrims and of the characters in their tales. It explains penitence, the process of contrition, confession, and satisfaction that each sinner must undergo. Also, it explains thoroughly the Seven Deadly Sins, which all good pilgrims must strive to avoid.

The Canterbury Tales Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s best-known and most important literary achievement, consists of twenty-four tales, some with prologues and epilogues, which range over a wide variety of styles, subjects, and genres. The work avoids becoming merely a loose collection of unrelated stories because of Chaucer’s ingenious development of the framing device of the pilgrimage and his ability to suit his diverse tales to the personalities of their tellers. Chaucer’s ideas about the book apparently evolved over a period of decades, with some tales (the Second Nun’s Tale, parts of the Monk’s Tale) possibly written as early as the 1370’s, and others (the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the Parson’s Tale) probably written in the later 1390’s, not long before his death. The imaginative breakthrough that made the work possible—his conceiving of the framing narrative that lends coherence to the stories—seems to have occurred some time in the 1380’s, when he must have written an early version of the General Prologue. The work is evidently unfinished, though the flexible nature of the framing device allows for considerable diversity of opinion as to Chaucer’s final plans for the poem’s overall structure.

The Canterbury Tales begins with the General Prologue, which opens with a lyrical evocation of springtime in England, the time for folk to go on pilgrimages to holy shrines to thank the saints for their good fortune of the past year. It then proceeds to a series of portraits of a particular group of pilgrims assembled at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, near London, where they are preparing to leave on their pilgrimage to Canterbury. The ostensibly random assemblage of pilgrims actually provides a fairly complete spectrum of the middle classes of fourteenth century England, omitting the higher nobility and the poorer peasants but representing a substantial number of the social gradations between the Knight and the Plowman. These characters are not merely representative abstractions, however, but are provided with vividly individual traits to the degree that they become distinct characters for the reader.

One of the most interesting of the characters is the unnamed first-person narrator, who meets the group at the inn on his way to Canterbury, decides to join their party, and describes them for the reader. Critics usually call the narrator “Chaucer the Pilgrim” to differentiate him from the author, whose point of view often seems to diverge considerably from that of his mouthpiece. While the naïve narrator approves of the worldly Prioress and Monk and is amused by the villainous Shipman, the reader is able to see beyond his uncritically approving point of view to their serious faults. The technique of the unreliable narrator leaves all direct storytelling and commentary to speakers whose point of view is suspect to various degrees and calls for the reader to infer the implicit truth from the information provided. If Chaucer did not originate this method of narration, he certainly developed it to a greater extent than any other writer before him. The device of the unreliable narrator has had an influence on later narrative writing, especially in the twentieth century, that would be difficult to overestimate, and much of this influence may be traced directly to Chaucer’s own refinement of the technique.

The proprietor of the Tabard Inn, Harry Bailly, is so struck by the conviviality of the group that he decides to join them on the condition that they agree to participate in a storytelling contest, with himself as leader and judge of the contest. Each pilgrim will tell four stories, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back, and the winner will get a free dinner at the inn at the other pilgrims’ expense. The travelers agree and draw lots for the telling of the first tale. The lot falls to the Knight, who begins the sequence of tales. No pilgrim actually tells more than one tale (with the exception of Chaucer the Pilgrim, discussed below), and at one time it was thought that Chaucer must have originally planned some 120 tales (four each for thirty pilgrims). More recently, critics have argued that the scheme for 120 tales is proposed by Harry Bailly, not Chaucer, and that The Canterbury Tales as a whole may be fairly close to its final form. While the work is clearly not finished in a strict traditional sense (the pilgrims never arrive at Canterbury or return, and the winner of the contest is never revealed), it does seem to have a coherence of effect that is just as satisfying aesthetically as a more rigid closure would have been.

The Knight tells one of the longest and most formal tales, a chivalric romance with philosophical overtones set in ancient Thebes, treating of courtly love and ceremonial combat among the nobility. This somewhat idealized tale of aristocratic life is followed by an abrupt change of pace when the Miller, so drunk that he can hardly sit on his horse, insists on telling the next tale, which addresses the rather less courtly love of a college student and his elderly landlord’s young wife. The tale is one of the finest examples of the fabliau, a short comic tale, usually obscene, depicting illicit love and practical jokes among lower-and middle-class characters. The tale contains a number of parallels to the Knight’s Tale and may be viewed in part as a parody of it. In addition to connecting with the preceding tale, the Miller’s Tale provides the impetus for the next. The Reeve, who bears a number of similarities to the foolish carpenter cuckolded by the student, takes the Miller’s Tale personally and repays him with another fabliau, this one about a miller whose wife and daughter are comically seduced by two college students. The Cook’s Tale, which follows, is an incomplete fragment that would evidently have been another fabliau.

These four tales follow the General Prologue and one another in all the major manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales and are collectively referred to as part (or fragment) 1 (or A). Depending on the manuscripts followed, modern editions usually recognize ten distinct parts; while the order of tales within each part is fixed, the parts themselves are not always arranged in the same order. None of the arrangements offered is without its problems, and it may well be the case that Chaucer had not decided on a final order. The most commonly followed arrangement is that of the Ellesmere manuscript, and that will be observed here, as well.

After part 2, which consists of the Man of Law’s tale of the saintly Constance and her several tribulations, come parts 3 through 5, a textually and thematically connected series that has come to be called the Marriage Group, as several of the tales seem to be pursuing what amounts to a running debate on the proper roles of the man and woman in marriage. In the Wife of Bath’s lengthy prologue, as well as in her tale, she argues that the woman should have the mastery of the man in marriage. While most of her arguments are drawn from traditional antifeminine satire, and while the stock character type of the bawdy older woman had existed since classical times, Chaucer combines these elements to original effect. Alison of Bath is developed into a much more rounded and sympathetic character than any of her predecessors, and her humorous and lively account of her methods of outwitting and dominating men seems, at least to modern readers, more feminist than antifeminist. After an exchange of fabliaux between the Friar and the Summoner (each telling a tale that degrades the other’s profession), the Clerk tells a tale about a pure and virtuous wife, perhaps by way of replying to the Wife of Bath, and then the Merchant tells a tale of an unfaithful wife. After a short and incomplete attempt at a chivalric romance by the youthful Squire (whose tale does not measure up to that of his accomplished father, the Knight), the Franklin tells a tale of mutual respect and forbearance by a married couple, a tale that is usually seen as concluding the marriage debate with a compromise. Part 6, one of the more difficult parts to place in the sequence, contains the brief Physician’s tale of Appius’s sacrifice of his daughter Virginia and the justly renowned Pardoner’s prologue and tale of greed and murder, frequently anthologized and often called one of the first great short stories in English literature.

Part 7 is the longest and most varied of the parts. It begins with the Shipman’s crude fabliau and the Prioress’s sentimental saint’s legend. Chaucer the Pilgrim starts to recount an inept romance about Sir Thopas, but his story is so bad that he is interrupted and told to stop. Chaucer the Pilgrim then tells the Tale of Melibee, a lengthy prose sermon. After the Monk recounts a series of brief tragic anecdotes, and is also interrupted, the Nun’s Priest tells his tale. The latter is based on the popular stories of Reynard the Fox, in which the fox tries to outwit and capture the cock, Chauntecleer. Chaucer fuses the genre of the beast fable with that of the mock epic, telling his story of barnyard animals in the elevated rhetoric of courtly romance, and makes the cock into a somewhat bombastic orator whose digressive and encyclopedic argument with his wife over dreams almost overshadows the plot of the story. Because of its comedy and stylistic range, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is widely considered by modern readers to be the one that ought to have been awarded the prize at the end of the pilgrimage.

In part 8, the Second Nun tells a saint’s legend, and the Canon Yeoman delivers an exposé of the fraudulent practices of medieval alchemists. Part 9 contains only the Manciple’s version of a tale from Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.) by Ovid, Chaucer’s favorite classical author. Part 10 contains the Parson’s long prose sermon and, perhaps, Chaucer’s Retraction, a listing and retraction of his worldly writings, which some critics see as a part of the text and an ironic advertisement for the works, and which others see as a sincere extrafictional address to posterity.

While The Canterbury Tales may be unfinished, the very openness of its structure has increasingly come to be seen as one of the sources of the work’s complexity and richness. The poem is unified to the degree that, read as a whole, it can draw the reader into the creative process of interpretation and discovery that it demands. Yet it is designed freely enough that the tales may also be appreciated as individual works outside the context of the frame.

The Canterbury Tales Summary

The Prologue
In the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Geoffrey Chaucer introduces the speaker of the poem as a man...

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The Canterbury Tales Summary and Analysis

The Canterbury Tales 1: General Prologue Summary and Analysis

New Characters
The Narrator: Geoffrey Chaucer the author, although he is never named

The Knight: father of the Squire; lord of the Yeoman

The Squire: young man of 20, son of the Knight

The Yeoman: a forester; servant of the Knight

The Prioress: superior of a monastery of nuns; attended by the Nun, the Monk, the Friar, and the Priest

The Monk: manages the estates of the Prioress and the monastery

The Friar: a religious who has taken a vow of poverty and is licensed to beg

The Nun: chaplain to the Prioress

The Priest: with the Prioress; not described

The Merchant:...

(The entire section is 2424 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 2: The Knight's Tale Summary and Analysis

The travelers have drawn straws to see who will tell the first tale. The Knight draws the shortest straw and graciously launches the entertainment with his tale.

Part One: In ancient times there was a famous conquering duke named Theseus who was lord of Athens. As the story opens, Theseus has just conquered the Amazons and married their queen, Hipppolyta. Returning victorious to Athens, the Duke is accosted by a group of grieving widows begging for his help. These noblewomen are all former residents of Thebes; their husbands have been killed in battle with the victorious King Creon who has forbidden the women to bury their dead and who has piled the bodies of their husbands in a heap for...

(The entire section is 1746 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 3: The Miller's Tale Summary and Analysis

The pilgrims congratulate the Knight on a wonderful story. The Host invites the Monk to tell another uplifting story, but the drunken Miller interrupts, insisting that he can match the Knight. The Host tries to stop the Miller, but the Miller will not be stopped. When he says he will tell a tale about a carpenter, the Reeve loudly objects; but it is to no avail. Chaucer warns the reader that the story may be coarse, but if the reader finds it offensive, he may choose another tale.

The Miller tells the story of a wealthy carpenter named John who has a very young and beautiful wife named Alison. Nicholas, a poor scholar of astrology, boards with John and Alison. Nicholas is young and lusty...

(The entire section is 999 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 4: The Reeve's Tale Summary and Analysis

All the pilgrims have laughed and enjoyed The Miller's Tale, but the favorable reception has angered the Reeve, who is himself an aging carpenter. He says that he, like all old men, is motivated by boasting, anger, lying, and covetousness. When the Host tells him to quit philosophizing and get on with his story, the Reeve promises to get even with the Miller.

Scornful Simkin is a wealthy miller who is armed to the teeth at all times and is very dishonest in his business dealings. No one dares accuse him, however, since he will immediately attack with one of the four weapons always on his person. Simkin has a wife with relatives among the nobility and a beautiful and desirable young...

(The entire section is 836 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 5: The Cook's Tale Summary and Analysis

The cook is mightily entertained by the story the Reeve told and wants to tell a funny story of his own. However, the Host reminds the Cook, who is named Hodge of Ware, that he owes the company a good tale since food he prepares so often makes travelers ill. Good-naturedly, the Cook begins his story.

Perkin the Reveler is apprenticed to a guild of food merchants. He is a wild and fun-loving youth, particularly fond of gambling and womanizing. Both vices require money which he lifts from his master's safe. One day, fed up, the master fires Perkin the Reveler. Perkin sends his personal belongings to the home of an equally devious friend . . . (Fragment concludes.)


(The entire section is 159 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 6: The Man of Law's Tale Summary and Analysis

The Host reminds the company that the day is nearly one quarter over and they must hurry on with the telling of tales. He calls on the Man of Law to begin his story quickly. The worthy gentleman consents. He rambles along for a while, commenting that he cannot hope to imitate the well-known poet Chaucer in the quality of his speech, yet he will tell one in prose even though he be plainspoken. The teller then rambles on some more in an apparent sermon against poverty. It seems that his tale will somehow deal with this subject, but it certainly does not.

Part One: The Christian Emperor of Rome has a beautiful and extremely virtuous daughter named Constance whose reputation comes to the...

(The entire section is 1568 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 7: The Shipman's Tale Summary and Analysis

The Host invites the Parson to tell his story next. When the Parson admonishes the Host for his drunkenness, the Host jokingly accuses the Parson of being a prude, and maybe even a heretic. Their interchange is rudely interrupted by the Shipman who says he will tell a jolly tale with no hint of preaching in it.

His tale begins with a very successful merchant who lived at St. Denis with his very beautiful wife, a woman excessively fond of entertaining and dressing herself to be admired. To accommodate her, the merchant kept a very fine house which was always filled with visitors. Frequently among them was a monk called Don John, a handsome man of 30. He and the merchant had become such...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 8: The Prioress's Tale Summary and Analysis.

After jesting rather coarsely about the monk in the Shipman's Tale—and monks in general—the Host switches to a tone of exaggerated politeness in inviting the Prioress to tell her tale.

A very young schoolboy learns a difficult Latin hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary because of his deep devotion to her. Every day, on the way to school and on the way home, he passes through the Jewish ghetto of the town singing the hymn.

Taking his singing as a direct insult, a group of wicked Jews has an assassin slit the boy's throat. The child's widowed mother searches for him everywhere. She finally discovers his poor little body on a dung heap. Miraculously, the child is still singing...

(The entire section is 336 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 9: The Tale of Sir Thopas Summary and Analysis

After the sobering miracle story, the Host calls on the Narrator to give a lively, amusing story. (The Host fancies himself something of a literary critic; apparently, the pilgrim Narrator's genial nature has led Harry Bailley to believe that the Narrator will know some excellent tales.) Apologetically, with tongue in cheek, the Narrator says he knows only one old story in rhyme-doggerel. (Rhyme-doggerel was a sing-song form of poetry associated with low-class humor.)

The First Fit: Sir Thopas, in all his youthful perfection and vanity, is closely described. One day, Sir Thopas rides out to hunt and falls into a fit of "love-longing." He finds no woman worthy to be the object of his love....

(The entire section is 642 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 10: The Monk's Tale Summary and Analysis

The Host comments that he wishes his own wife were as patient as Prudence in the Tale of Melibeus. He describes Goodlief, his wife, as ill-tempered in the extreme and big and brawny into the bargain. In short, Harry reveals that he is henpecked.

The Host then turns the company's attention to the Monk, whom he abuses at length, supposedly in jest. Harry comments on the Monk's well-fed and sturdy appearance, remarks that he would make a fine breeder, and adds that if the Host had his way, all the monks and priests would have wives and beget fine children. Harry feels that the Church is taking all the best men and leaving only weaklings among the laity who are fathering inferior offspring....

(The entire section is 326 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 11: The Nun's Priest's Tale Summary and Analysis

The Knight interrupts the listing of tragedies by the Monk, saying that such grim recitals are making everyone sad. The Host immediately agrees, commenting that the long narration has almost put everyone to sleep. He begs the Monk to tell them something different. When the Monk declines, Harry calls upon the Nun's Priest to tell a happy story. The Priest laughingly agrees, seeing that the clever Monk has revenged himself on Harry Bailley by nearly boring him to death.

He begins his tale about a poor old widow who owns a remarkable rooster named Chanticleer. For crowing exactly on time he has no equal, and the splendor of his colored feathers and his coral comb is amazing. Chanticleer has...

(The entire section is 1001 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 12: The Wife of Bath's Tale Summary and Analysis

The Wife of Bath tells the travelers that she has buried five husbands and has lived in the married state since she was 12 years old. Furthermore, she is now looking for her sixth husband. For these reasons, she considers herself an expert on the subject of matrimony.

Before telling her story, the Wife feels compelled to defend her numerous marriages. In a lengthy monologue, she counters the religious arguments against multiple marriages. For instance, she says, although God and St. Paul recommend chastity as a perfect state, neither of them expressly forbid marriage. Since she is not perfect and has no desire to be, she personally prefers being married as she has an enormous appetite for...

(The entire section is 1820 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 13: The Friar's Tale Summary and Analysis

The Friar says it is time to speak of "gayer things" and volunteers to tell a tale he knows about a summoner. He adds that everyone knows how hated summoners are. The Host is afraid the Friar will upset the pilgrim Summoner, but the pilgrim Summoner says that he will shortly pay the Friar back. The Friar begins.

An archdeacon kept in his employ a summoner who had no rival for finding sinners. The man kept a network of spies to help him discover wrongdoers. He often pretended that he had charges against an individual, but if that person would compensate him, the charges would be "dismissed." By extorting money in this manner, the summoner grew rich; he shared only a little of what he...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 14: The Summoner's Tale Summary and Analysis

The pilgrim Summoner is so enraged at the condemnation of the Friar that he immediately tells an evil little joke about an angel touring a friar around hell. When the visiting friar comments that he sees no friars in hell, the angel takes him directly to Satan who reveals 20,000 friars hiding in his ass, the idea being that Satan and friars are extremely close. He then tells his tale.

There was once a very greedy friar who was licensed to beg and preach in a particular district. He would pretend to have his scribe record all the names of those who donated so that his monastery could pray for them, but the names were erased as soon as he was out of sight.

On the day this story...

(The entire section is 560 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 15: The Cleric's Tale Summary and Analysis

The jovial Host teases the young Cleric for his quiet, demure behavior, but begs him to tell them a gay story with no preaching and no rhetoric. This gentler clergyman, in contrast with the two who preceded him, mildly agrees to relate a tale first written by Francis Petrarch, an Italian poet whom the Cleric revered.

The First Part: The Marquis of Saluzzo was a handsome and admired young squire who was also a bachelor. His people persuaded him that it was time to marry and even offered to pick his bride for him. He declined the offer, preferring to select his own wife, but did set a date for the wedding and commanded that all preparations be made.

The Second Part: Walter of...

(The entire section is 1015 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 16: The Merchant's Tale Summary and Analysis

Commenting that his wife is absolutely nothing like Griselda, the Merchant reveals that he is very unhappily married. The Host, who can sympathize, begs the Merchant to tell more. Saying he would prefer not to go on about his own troubles, the Merchant begins his story.

January is an Italian knight who has remained a bachelor for 60 years. However, he has recently become convinced that the married state is the happiest and has, therefore, decided that he will take a wife.

January calls in all of his friends and brothers and lectures them all on the bliss of the wedded state. He then begs them to help him find a young wife because he wants to marry right away. Some advise him...

(The entire section is 968 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 17: The Squire's Tale Summary and Analysis

The Host invites the Squire to tell a love story, assuming the youth to be knowledgeable in such matters. The Squire says he really does not know that much, but he agrees to tell a story.

The First Part: In the land of the Tatars there lived a noble and famous king, called Cambiuskan, who possessed every conceivable virtue and knightly trait. Cambiuskan and his queen had two sons and a gorgeous young daughter, Canace.

The story begins in the twentieth year of Cambiuskan's reign. In the early spring, he announces his birthday feast, as was his custom. As the glorious feast begins, the guests are suddenly amazed to see a knight on a brass horse, wearing a bare sword, ride into...

(The entire section is 738 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 18: The Franklin's Tale Summary and Analysis

The Franklin tells the company that the ancient Bretons made up rhymed stories which they set to music. He says he is uneducated but can tell one of the traditional Breton tales.

In Brittany, a noble knight falls in love with an honorable lady. When she learns of his love, the lady agrees to take the knight as her husband. The knight is overjoyed. In his enthusiasm, he volunteers never to be jealous or to try to rule her. His wife need only let it appear as though he is the master in the marriage.

Arveragus and Dorigen marry; but after about a year, Arveragus announces that he must go to London for a year or two in order to win knightly honor and glory in arms. As soon as her...

(The entire section is 1196 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 19: The Physician's Tale Summary and Analysis

This is the only story which is not linked to the others by dialogue among the pilgrims.

Virginius, a noble knight of Old Rome, had the loveliest daughter anyone could imagine. She was Nature's perfect work; and Virginia's virtue was a thousand times greater than her beauty. She was particularly prudent with regard to preserving her chastity. To protect her purity, Virginia often pretended to be ill so that she wouldn't be vulnerable to the wantonness prevelant at dances, feasts, and revels.

One day, when Virginia goes to pray at the temple, a very famous judge called Appius observes the maiden and immediately determines to ravish her. Conspiring with a fellow called Claudius,...

(The entire section is 624 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 20: The Pardoner's Tale Summary and Analysis

The Host finds the Physician's story terribly touching. Teasing the Physician, he begs the Pardoner to cure the pain caused by the Physician's narrative by telling a gay story immediately. The Pardoner, denied a drink before launching his tale, punishes the company by making them wait while he thinks of a suitably moral story.

That greed is the root of all evil, the Pardoner tells the travelers, is always his theme when he preaches. He boasts openly of his corrupt practices and manipulative methods of getting money out of the gullible. He brags boldly of how little he cares for humanity. He also states that he enjoys the creature comforts humanity's guilt and stupidity afford him. The...

(The entire section is 694 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 21: The Second Nun's Tale Summary and Analysis

The Nun tells the company that idleness leads to sinfulness while lawful industry is an aid to the avoidance of sin. The sister then tells the company that she will tell the life of St. Cecelia to give them an example of a good woman. She says she will tell them the version she has translated from The Legend of Good Women.

The tale is preceded by an Invocation to Mary in which the nun prays to be inspired to tell the story to the profit of her listeners. The Invocation is followed by a lengthy explanation of the name "Cecelia," which may be translated "lily of heaven," "the way for the blind," or "lack of blindness." If one stretches a point, it may...

(The entire section is 813 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 22: The Canon's Yeoman's Tale Summary and Analysis

New Characters
The Canon: clergyman, generally in charge of a cathedral

The Canon's Yeoman: servant to the Canon

Shortly after the tale of St. Cecelia is finished, two riders, one of whom is dressed like a canon, approach the party. They have observed the jolly group and have ridden very hard to catch up and join the party. The Host bids them welcome if the Canon is able to tell a merry tale or two. The Canon's Yeoman replies that the Canon is a very important person and certainly able to contribute to the entertainment. In fact, it is hinted that he somehow knows a very great deal about a great many things. The Host is impatient with the Yeoman's...

(The entire section is 778 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 23: The Manciple's Tale Summary and Analysis

The Cook had so much to drink that he has fallen asleep in the saddle. The Manciple derides and insults him for this, whereupon the Cook's drunken agitation causes him to fall off his horse. The Manciple doubles his insults. He then reconsiders his position, since he and the Cook are apparently professionally associated and the Cook could retaliate by revealing things the Manciple does not want known. He therefore suggests that they placate the Cook with more wine. This tactic works, and the Manciple then tells his tale.

When the ancient Phoebus lived on the earth, he was a wonderous man, greatly to be admired. He kept a pet crow which he taught to speak. This crow was snow white and sang...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 24: The Parson's Tale Summary and Analysis

The journey of the pilgrims is almost over as this interlude begins. The Parson wants to remind the travelers that life itself is a spiritual journey, but the Parson says that he declines to bury his message in a fable. He will speak out exactly what he means. Promising to be brief, the Parson begins his tale.

The Parson openly preaches a sermon on the nature of penitence. First of all he discusses the concept of contrition. He describes the requirements for confession and details how satisfaction for sin is to be made. This incredibly long discourse becomes a sort of handbook for the sinner who wishes to obtain God's forgiveness according to the teachings of the Catholic Church.


(The entire section is 298 words.)

The Canterbury Tales 25: Chaucer's Retraction Summary and Analysis

Chaucer tells the reader that The Canterbury Tales are meant to give an overview of human nature; to be an encyclopedia of human behavior. The author does not want to be seen as a judge of his fellow man, but merely as a recorder of what he has heard and observed. He hopes that even the bawdy tales may be a means of improving his readers' souls.

Chaucer adds his thanks to God, to the Virgin Mary, and to the saints for their inspiration in the writing of his more spiritual works. He begs for the grace of true penitence and the blessing of a happy death.

Discussion and Analysis
The nature of the retraction—a sincere statement to...

(The entire section is 124 words.)